Julia Coccaro is agitated, nervously manipulating her iPhone in her palm, wondering aloud, “Maybe I should call. I’m supposed to hear any day now. But they were going to email. What do you think? I want this more than anyone has wanted anything in their lives. Anything.” A high school senior, she is sweating out the all-important responses to several college applications, although she really only cares deeply about one in particular. “As soon as I visited the campus, I just knew. It was like being home, the perfect place for me. You could feel it – the energy. I want it sooo badly!”
She just knew. And she just knows. That’s the feeling you get interacting with her. Short and pretty with wavy brown hair, a megawatt smile, and a steady, unblinking gaze that signals undivided attention, the level of self-assuredness she possesses is striking. It might be obnoxious in any other 17-year-old, but this is simply a young lady who is comfortable in her own skin, consequently seeing adults as her social equals (although some adults don’t even aspire to her level).
The “It” she wants is acceptance to Barnard College, the women’s school affiliated with Columbia University and one of the most selective institutions in the country. “I fell in love with New York City,” she says, exhilarated at the richness and variety of cultures and languages there. “Astoria in particular, which is especially diverse,” she adds. It’s that kind of variety that fuels her goal: to help eliminate bias and discrimination. It’s no surprise that she is interested in studying political science and is certain she will run for office one day.
We’re sitting at a table in the loft of the Spanish Fort Public Library on this very cold Pearl Harbor Day, surrounded by literary brain food – an appropriately book-laden atmosphere for this informal but provocative interview. Julia is immediately personable, enthusiastic, and forthcoming. “I’m an open book,” she declares. “You can ask me anything.” So I do. I ask her if she considers herself an agitator, whereupon she looks thoughtful for a beat, then, “I admire Upton Sinclair. I consider myself a whistleblower.”
And she’s blown a couple of high-profile whistles over the past year or so. When a Spanish Fort High School history teacher’s summer reading list, unapproved but unnoticed by the Baldwin County Board of Education, found its way to Facebook, courtesy of Julia, a viral and national media wave followed. The list proved to be an ultra-right wing (some of it the notorious “alt right”) assortment of screeds with little, if any, scholarly or educational value – more useful for the indoctrination of someone’s personal beliefs and opinions, the kind of proselytizing that public educators are ethically required not to do.
Having filed a complaint with the school board and following up with outspoken discourse at meetings and with the press, Julia is aware that some might perceive her as aggressive and demanding – or at best undiplomatic. She also believes she’s been misunderstood, even mischaracterized. “I never wanted anyone fired,” she says, “and I don’t hate anyone. I would not have been so vocal had they been more responsive,” she says of the school board.
Of course, as a former employee of said board, I am aware that there are long and winding channels that any grievance must navigate – hoops to jump, files to fill, warnings to issue – and that takes time. When a complaint is lodged, patience must follow.
But whistleblowers are not known so much for patience.
And that is also the case, it seems, with high school peers, most of whom did not have the patience, or rather the thickness of skin, to stick by Julia as she was harassed, ridiculed, and ignored by other students because of her point of view.
Has she always been so opinionated? “Probably around the middle school years is when I got involved in discussions about abortion, on the pro-life side.” After a while, she realized, she was merely going along with the crowd in order to be accepted. She lives in a state that has a majority of conservatives, after all, “and I realized that most of my peers were only spitting out what their parents told them to think.”
Were her own parents not guilty of that very offense? “No,” she says, describing her father as fiscally conservative and her mother as more liberal, “they always encouraged me to come to my own conclusions. They wanted me to be an independent thinker.” In words that my former teacher persona liked to use, they taught her how to think, as opposed to what to think. So she did something that, again, not many middle-schoolers, immersed as they are in clubs and cliques, gossip and self-absorption, would be motivated to do: “I educated myself.” By the time her research was concluded, she was decidedly pro-choice.
Her father David confirmed for me that Julia has always been her own person and “mature beyond her years.” Furthermore, he said, this was “evident even at four and five years old,” when, at parties and gatherings, she “could always be found socializing with the adults – not in a playful way, but in a way more conducive to adult discussions,” adding that “she was always more comfortable and in her element in those situations.” Clearly, he is very proud of his strong-minded daughter, confident that she’ll succeed in life.
According to Julia, “Critical thinking is really important. So many people in this part of the
country are thought clones of each other, and not enough have a true passion and genuine curiosity.” In spite of that, she says, “It’s beautiful here and I love it – and I’m grateful to have grown up here, because it has strengthened my convictions and made me more sure about my progressive beliefs.”
Even though she is by nature “not a people person,” (but absolutely possesses people skills), she bemoans the state of dialogue among folks with differing perspectives. “I can’t stand closed-mindedness, and I wish people would make a conscious effort to stick with unbiased sources and look at evidence rather than go with emotion. I wish there were more of a willingness to listen to the other side.”
To that end, she is staunchly opposed to generalizations. “I think being open-minded is infinitely more important than being labeled ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’.”
After the Great Abortion About-Face of middle school, Julia’s next burst of activism was, as a high school sophomore, to request to form a chapter of the High School Democrats of America, a breakaway organization from the Young Democrats, at Spanish Fort. After all, there was a Teenage Republicans Club, so it seemed only right and fair. But it was difficult to find a sponsor, and the sponsors she found did not last. One controversy involved the school reportedly discouraging discussions of LGBTQ-related topics at HSDA meetings, which members found discriminatory and anti-intellectual. With such turmoil and controversy, the club had gone through three sponsors by the end of junior year. In spite of that, and although now defunct, the organization grew in number, to about 25 members, and joined with the Republicans for lively, if unruly, debates.
Now that she’s well over a semester into her senior year, have the bullying and shunning let up? “Not at all,” she says, maintaining that it is not as awful as it seems and that she gets through it just fine, thank you very much. “I see it as character-building, a perverse kind of fun, really. It’s a challenge, every day, and I like a challenge.”
But does she have any friends, I ask, with the concern of a former guidance counselor familiar with the age group and the pressures that come with it. “Don’t worry about me,” she insists. Along with some relationships at Publix, where she works part time, “I have a small group of politically neutral or liberal friends – and I have friends online. My closest friend is an HSDA member in Portland, Ore.” I look at her with the rusty skill of that same counselor, and her eyes tell me that she is, indeed, being honest. It’s an extraordinary attitude, given her age.
Not that there haven’t been real difficulties in her young life. When she first moved South from Indiana in third grade, she was called a “Yankee” and received comments like, “Indiana? Oh, you must be an Indian.” Thus the impulse to fit in, which ultimately led to the abortion issue. Much more significantly, just a few years ago her parents’ divorce sent her into a serious clinical depression that took time and effort to work through. True to form, she came out of the darkness with burgeoning empathy for folks dealing with mental illness, and adopted yet another cause for which to lend her advocacy.
As for relaxation and leisure, like many a teenager she enjoys alternative rock and binge-watching The Walking Dead and Grey’s Anatomy when she needs “to not think,” because, “I’m an over-thinker. It’s definitely a blessing and a curse.”
About a week before Christmas, she got the word. Barnard said yes to her and yes to footing a healthy chunk of the expense. She will enroll this fall. Of course, my money was on her all along, and she clearly has the right stuff to make her time at Barnard count for all the promise it has. She has shown her school and her community that when a rebel-blooded whistle-blower is given the gift of a flawed system, there’s only one way to proceed: Julia’s way. She stood up to what she saw as wrong, with friends and support that, like flighty teen spirit, quickly peeled away. And despite abandonment, public disapproval, shunning, and even bullying, she did not back down. She persisted.